“What does a smoke scythe mean?” I asked Conroy. I hadn’t moved since I’d spotted it floating in the sky. I felt like my feet were rooted to the ground.
“It’s an announcement,” the owl necklace answered reluctantly.
“What kind of announcement? A wedding announcement? A new bundle of joy announcement?” I asked hopefully, even though I was pretty sure it wasn’t a ‘Hey, good news!’ kind of thing.
My chest tightened and I found it hard to breathe. “What kind of culling?”
“One performed by Cullers. Cullers with a capital C.”
“And what do Cullers with a capital C cull?” While I asked the question, I forced myself to start moving again in the direction of the smoke, though I did it at a fast walk rather than a jog, needing to get as much information as possible before arriving on the actual scene.
“For the most part they separate those that they believe aren’t magically pure. But sometimes they go after individuals with exceptional powers.”
In the distance I could hear people yelling. Pumping my elbows, I picked up my pace to speed-walking. “Separate them from what?”
“From their power.”
“They kill them?”
“Yes…in the hopes they can absorb their magic.” I knew from his tone that there was something he was avoiding telling me, but I’d reached the outskirts of the explosion area and didn’t ask him to elaborate.
There was a giant fire pit, flanked by carved benches. I assumed that this was where the Raven’s Nest community bonfire that Mildred had mentioned was held. The smoldering remnants of a fire remained in the hole, most of it having been doused by the fire extinguisher Tess held. She was clutching the cannister to her chest, breathing heavily.
Ernie, the old guy, and Marco, the astronomer, were racing around stomping out stray embers, trying to prevent a forest fire. I rushed forward to help and together we extinguished the rest of the errant flames.
When we were done, I looked over and found that the married couple, Joe and Norma were standing beside Tess. I couldn’t tell if they were complaining or comforting her.
I was surprised to not see Richie. He didn’t seem like the type of boy who’d pass up the chance to check out an explosion.
“Are you cursed?” Ernie pointed at me with his walking stick.
Startled, I stuttered, “Ex—excuse me?” I mean I amcursed, but how would he know that?
“First Keith and now this?” The wizened man stepped closer, peering at me closely.
“It is suspicious that these mishaps have befallen the camp since you arrived,” Marco remarked as he pulled at the edges of his mustache.
“You call murder a mishap?” Every head swiveled in the direction of Corporal Welmont’s voice.
“What are you doing here?” Tess demanded defensively.
“Giant fireball rises in the sky, it’s my duty to check it out and make sure everyone is safe.” The cop puffed out his chest.
I squinted at him. I hadn’t seen a fireball, only smoke. I scanned the faces of the others to see if they doubted the veracity of his statement. I saw no disbelief.
“Everyone’s safe,” Tess told him. “You can leave.”
Crossing his arms over his chest, Welmont studied the group that had gathered. “Where’s your errand boy?”
He was right that Sol wasn’t there, but neither was Richie and I didn’t like the tone of the officer when he singled out the magician. “Where are Richie and his mom?” I found myself asking aloud.
“She had a job interview, so she left the kid with us,” Norma said.
“So, where is he?” I asked.
Norma gave me a smug smile. “In our camper, watching cartoons.”
Joe grabbed his head with both hands. “You left that juvenile delinquent alone in our place? He could burn the place down!” He ran off in the direction of their campsite.
Hooking his thumbs into his belt, Welmont swaggered over to me. “That doesn’t explain why bad things keep happening since you got here.”
I tried to keep my expression neutral as his gaze bored into mine. He’d find no guilt on my face because I hadn’t done anything wrong, but he would find animosity since I despised him.
“Cat got your tongue?” he taunted.
“You haven’t asked me anything.”
I saw the muscle in his jaw jump as he ground his teeth with frustration. I tilted my head to the side and offered him a patronizing smile.
Realizing he was losing his battle with me, he turned away. “Nobody knows where the errand boy is?”
Ernie and Marco shook their heads.
Tess glared at him defiantly. “There’s nothing to see. No crime’s been committed. You’ve got no reason to be here.”
Welmont shook his head. “You’re forgetting about the murder mishap. Someone murdered Keith and I’m going to be around until I figure out who it was.” There was no mistaking the threat in his words.
“I’ve got work to do,” Tess muttered. She glanced at the glowing embers in the fire pit and stalked away.
Ernie followed suit and muttered, “It’s time for my medication.” Leaning on his walking stick he walked away.
“And I’ve got…um…I’ve got….research to do,” Marco stammered before turning tail and fleeing.
Feeling no need to make an excuse, I just turned and headed back toward Princess.
“Stop!” Welmont bellowed.
I halted but refused to turn to face him.
“I’m watching you,” he warned.
I swung around. “Ernie saw Keith dead long before I ever arrived, and science will have proven I wasn’t even in the vicinity at his time of death.”
“Think you’re so smart, don’t you?” Welmont’s lip curved in a sneer of superiority. “You think I haven’t considered the possibility that you parked outside the camp, snuck in here to kill and then showed up with your ‘I’m innocent!’act?”
Panic, cold and powerful, gripped me and my stomach roiled traitorously. I’d been accused of something similar before. That hadn’t gone well.
“You’re my prime suspect,” Welmont gloated. “What do you think of that?”
I blinked and forced myself to take a steadying breath before I responded. “I think that if you keep your focus on me, Corporal, that the real killer is going to remain at large.”
Welmont shook his head. “It’s a good act. I can see how people would fall for it. But not me. You know why? Because I know you killed your husband and mother-in-law and you’re not going to get away with murder in my jurisdiction.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t kill him.”
“But you’re admitting you killed her?”
I shook my head. “You interrupted before I finished. I was going to claim that I didn’t do anything to her either.”
“I understand that’s your official claim, but the police in Jersey believe you murdered Buddy and Mildred Bloodworth.”
Tired of playing the game, I gave him a hard stare. “They came up with diddly and you have even less. Have a good day, officer.” Spinning around I strode away.
“Corporal,” he called after me. “I’m a corporal.”
Ignoring him, I trudged on.
“We have to talk,” Conroy said.
“I know,” I muttered. “I screwed up. I don’t need a lecture about not antagonizing him.”
“Not about that.”
The seriousness of his tone made me stumble. “About what th—”
Garrett, the tailless squirrel ran into my path. “Did you really kill them?” he demanded in that New Yawkeraccent of his. “Did ya knock off the Bloodworths?”
Stopping, I frowned at the woodland creature. “Did I say I killed them?”
“No, but you were lying through your teeth about them.”
“No. I wasn’t,” I said a tad too defensively.
“You might notta killed Buddy, but you definitely had something to do with that old witch croaking. Which makes you a bonafide hero in my book.”
“Because she turned you into a squirrel?”
He blinked rapidly, his whiskers going rigid. “Tess wouldn’t have told you that.”
“Then who? Who else knows?” He stood up on his hind legs and stared at me with his black eyes. “I demand you tell me.”
“You’re not going to like the answer.”
“You think I like running up and down trees all day? I can deal with things I don’t like.”
“Mildred told me.”
“But the cop said she’s dead.”
“She is. But…”
“But what?” he barked at me.
“She’s haunting me,” I admitted. “I’m here because she wants to right the wrong that she did you.” I kept it to myself that it would involve trapping him and using him in some kind of magical ritual.
“You are the most foul-mouthed rodent I have ever met,” I told him mildly.
“You want me to believe that Mildred Bloodworth is haunting you?”
I shrugged. “I don’t care if you believe me or not. It’s the truth.”
“Well then she’s the one that’s lying to you. She’s never going to fix what she did to me and my Tess.” With that he scampered away into the underbrush.
Sighing heavily, I began walking again.
“We need to talk,” the owl around my neck reminded me.
“The Cullers. That signal was—”
I interrupted. “The smoke scythe?”
“Yes, the smoke scythe. It was more than a signal. It was them throwing down the gauntlet. They’re ready to do battle.”